Phily priest sex-abuse trial hears heated closing arguments

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01 June 2012

By John P. Martin and Joseph A. Slobodzian

Inquirer Staff Writers

Msgr. William J. Lynn, with attorneys Thomas Bergstrom (left) and Jeffrey Lindy, is charged with conspiracy.


Msgr. William J. Lynn, with attorneys Thomas Bergstrom (left) and Jeffrey Lindy, is charged with conspiracy.

As the official in charge of investigating clergy sex abuse for the Archdiocese of Philadelphia, Msgr. William J. Lynn bravely “put a spotlight” on the shame of the Catholic Church, his lawyer told jurors Thursday.

A prosecutor called Lynn’s actions something else: just shameful.

“He and everyone else who protected pedophile priests were murdering the souls of children,” Assistant District Attorney Patrick Blessington said.

The conflicting portraits emerged during a day of closing arguments in the landmark prosecution of Lynn and the Rev. James J. Brennan. The jury of six men and six women is scheduled to begin deliberations Friday.

The summations capped an 11-week trial in which more than 60 witnesses testified, including Lynn and almost two dozen alleged abuse victims. Jurors also saw nearly 2,000 documents, most from secret church archives, that showed accused clerics being shuffled among parishes. Many were records Lynn drafted or reviewed during a 12-year tenure as Cardinal Anthony J. Bevilacqua‘s adviser on clergy sex abuse.

Thomas Bergstrom, one of four attorneys representing Lynn, told jurors that the former clergy secretary was being unfairly held accountable for the sins of the church.

“You have witnessed evil in this courtroom. You have seen the dark side of the church and you have seen grown men come into this courtroom and weep because they were abused,” Bergstrom said. “If we cannot feel their pain, then we are broken.”

Lynn also felt the pain, Bergstrom said, but did not cause it and should not pay for it. He said prosecutors mounted a misguided case against the one church official who tried to identify and remove abusive priests.

“This man, who never touched a child but documented the evil that other men did,” the lawyer said, raising his voice and pointing to his client, “he held more than a candle to their shame. He put a spotlight on their shame.”

Blessington, for his part, did not shy away from the suggestion that Lynn’s prosecution represented something larger.

“We’re all the victims have,” the prosecutor told jurors. “We’ve got one shot for justice, and this is it.”

Lynn, 61, is accused of one count of conspiracy and two of endangering children for allegedly recommending that his codefendant, Brennan, 48, and another priest, Edward Avery, be allowed to live or work in parishes despite suspecting they would abuse children.

Now defrocked, Avery pleaded guilty before trial to sexually assaulting a 10-year-old altar boy in 1999, seven years after Lynn first fielded an abuse allegation about him.

Bergstrom said no proof supported the charge that Avery and Lynn conspired to endanger the altar boy. He said Lynn can only be guilty of endangerment if jurors believe he failed to act, or took steps “so lame and meager” that they were all but certain to place a child in peril. He showed the jurors memos between Lynn and therapists that outlined Avery’s treatment and aftercare.

Lynn could recommend actions, his lawyer said, but only the cardinal could act.

“If [Lynn] had the power and the authority, he wouldn’t need to recommend. He simply would have done it,” Bergstrom said.

Blessington, who spent more than two days cross-examining Lynn, said blame-the-bosses was just one in a rotation of defenses Lynn’s lawyers had feebly argued. He said others included citing canon law as an obstacle, or maintaining that Lynn was doing the best job he could given the rules.

The prosecutor called Lynn “the coach, quarterback, and general manager rolled into one,” the only church official responsible for fielding abuse complaints and doing something – or nothing – about them.

Lynn kept his job for more than a decade, Blessington said, because he was good at it.

“He stayed there as long as he did because he was willing to carry out the program, he was willing to keep the secrets,” the prosecutor said.

The arguments drew an overflow crowd of Lynn’s supporters, reporters, victims’ advocates and others. The attorneys’ styles were as different as their arguments.

Bergstrom stood for an hour at a lectern in the middle of the courtroom, glancing at notes scrawled on sheets from a yellow legal pad. He cited Shakespeare and Twelve Angry Men, and at times spoke so softly it seemed as if he was sharing a secret just with jurors.

Blessington stood closer to the jury box and spoke for twice as long. He paced, yelled and buried his face in his hands, and relied on an outline typed on white sheets. He quoted Winston Churchill and the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., but punctuated his arguments with sayings from his Philadelphia boyhood.

“He’s spitting on you and telling you it’s raining,” the prosecutor said, suggesting Lynn lied to jurors, victims, and parishioners alike. “He’s insulting your intelligence. Don’t let him get away with it.”

Both lawyers highlighted church records about some of 20 other accused priests who were never charged but whose actions became a focus of the trial. Common Pleas Court Judge M. Teresa Sarmina let prosecutors introduce those past allegations as evidence that Lynn realized the scope of the abuse problem and that his actions regarding Avery and Brennan followed a long-standing pattern by church leaders.

Bergstrom highlighted a half-dozen memos that suggested Lynn had recommended a priest be removed within days or weeks of being accused. He acknowledged that the only instance when an accused priest reoffended under Lynn’s watch was when Avery assaulted the altar boy.

“And what did he say about that? He said, ‘I’m sorry for that,’ ” the lawyer told jurors.

Blessington said apologies aren’t enough, especially for Avery’s victim. To underline his point, he showed jurors a snapshot of the smiling 10-year-old boy that Avery has admitted molesting.

He said jurors need only to conclude that Lynn was an accomplice or participant in a broader scheme that endangered children, not that he was at the top of the chain.

Lynn, the prosecutor noted, had included Avery on the secret 1994 list he compiled of area priests he had concluded were guilty of sexual misconduct with minors.

Blessington read just one full document to jurors, a love letter the Rev. Michael Murtha drafted to a seventh-grader at St. Anselm’s Church in Northeast Philadelphia in 1995. In it, Murtha fantasized about oral sex and sadistic acts with the boy.

The priest never sent the letter. Lynn recommended that Murtha be sent for treatment and later arranged his transfer to other parishes with schools.

“That was so wrong,” Blessington told jurors. “You cannot take that kind of risk. . . . And he did it all the time.”

He acknowledged that the evidence against Brennan was less comprehensive. Brennan is accused of trying to rape a 14-year-old boy he knew in 1996 during a sleepover at Brennan’s West Chester apartment. At the time, the priest was on a leave of absence from the archdiocese.

“He’s a vagabond, a wandering soul, but he’s not a pedophile,” his lawyer, William J. Brennan, told the jury.

The lawyer, who is unrelated to his client, argued that the accuser and his family concocted the claim to win a payout from the church.

“They are dead broke and they are desperate,” William Brennan said. “And desperate people do desperate things.”

The prosecutor countered that the man’s version of the abuse has never wavered. Blessington said the accuser, a Bucks County resident who testified in the trial, did not sue for damages until 15 years after the incident. He also asked jurors to consider why the victim, if he was lying, chose to target Brennan and did not create a more elaborate or gut-wrenching story.

“If he was that evil,” Blessington said, “how hard would it be?”


Contact John P. Martin at 215-854-4774 or at Follow him @JPMartinInky on Twitter.

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